Each year, our Wine Champions tasting throws up an array of interesting stories. As it’s a blind tasting, we don’t know who the stars of the show will be. But once the last cork has been pulled and the final score awarded, we find out which countries, regions, grape varieties and producers have shone the brightest that year.
Our buyers taste through a series of wine ‘flights’, sampling more than 900 bottles in total over a period of three weeks. After each flight, they submit their scores, and the top-scoring wines from each flight earn coveted Wine Champion status – but only if at least three-quarters of the tasters award the wine top marks. That means you get the best of our best for drinking now, with diversity and deliciousness guaranteed.
In 2022, several exciting stories have emerged from the tasting room.
Madiran: a southern French show-stealer
We start in France, where the region of Madiran delivered a trio of Champions, each one at a different stage of evolution (bottles from 2009, 2012 and 2016 all triumphed). Madiran is in Gascony, in the south-west of the country, and the predominant grape is tannat, a robust, thick-skinned variety that produces inky-black wines high in antioxidants.
It’s a wine not every member will be familiar with, but if you’ve never tried it, buyer Marcel Orford-Williams has this to say: ‘Typically, Madiran can be compared to a more powerful version of a cabernet-based claret but stronger and fuller-bodied. The best wines have a great aptitude for ageing. In recent years, most growers have created a softer, rounder style from younger vines that can be drunk sooner and that are less tannic.’
A good Madiran demands to be paired with food, and it’s the perfect partner for French fare such as sizzling duck breast or Comté or Cheddar cheese.
Claret cleans up
Heading north, we arrive in Bordeaux: claret country. During the tasting sessions, buyer Tim Sykes declared that Bordeaux ‘really cleans up’ between £10 and £20. The region has its cluster of star names that command high prices, but Tim is keen to point out that it delivers fantastic wine at the cheaper end, too.
He explains: ‘The top 50-or-so châteaux known throughout the world command the limelight and know they can sell their wines at eyewatering prices. Inevitably, the reputation of the whole region is influenced by these few châteaux, which actually produce a tiny percentage of the region’s production. The vast majority of Bordeaux’s production is sold for under £20 a bottle.
‘The combination of some really good vintages recently, combined with improving winemaking and vineyard techniques and know-how means that claret quality has never been better. Bordeaux is a big region and competition is fierce, and these so-called petits châteaux can’t afford to charge the earth if they want to sell their wines successfully – hence the value.’
All of this is good news for members, with a choice of under-£20 red Bordeaux Wine Champions to pick from.
Fabulous fiano: an Italian grape that showed its class
One of the star grape varieties was fiano, which calls the south of Italy home. It was responsible for three Champions – two 100% varietals, and a fiano-greco blend. It’s not the first Italian white grape on most people’s lips, but it should be.
Sebastian Payne MW, for whom this year’s Wine Champions was his Society swansong before retirement, has long believed that fiano is one of the top white grapes in Italy, capable of making wines with ‘real class and finesse’ – read more in his guide to Italian varieties.
He said: ‘Fiano is one of the great success stories of southern Italy, because its flavour is full and distinguished enough to match so many of the Italian ingredients and dishes that are now so popular, such as aubergines, sardines and pork chops‘.
‘It is widely planted in Campania, where it was first revived by [historic estate] Mastroberardino, but also makes one of the best whites in Puglia and Sicily, and even Australia now. The best ones age well, too.’
Newton Johnson: a South African hat-trick hero
Based near the beautiful coastal town of Hermanus, Newton Johnson scored a hat-trick of Wine Champions this year. One of its three awards went to its albariño, a seafood-friendly variety originally from Galicia in north-west Spain that delivers fresh, zesty, whistle-clean whites. It’s not a variety commonly found in the Cape, but the Newton Johnson family were among the first to grow it, and are delighted with the results.
MD Bevan Newton Johnson said: ‘We wanted to find a wine variety that best illustrates the combinations of factors we farm with: a maritime climate (we’re three miles from the Atlantic Ocean) and our granite soils. So, we decided to investigate albariño, due to the similar growing conditions in Galicia.
The elements of the variety we wanted to focus on and like to see come out in our wines are – fresh aromatic varietal fruit for albariño, good mid-palate texture (to make the wine more food-friendly), and great balanced acidity. It has shown itself very well in its character of fruit, the texture is truly encouraging, and it retains its acidity better than any other variety we work with.
‘The Cape is blessed by lots of coastline, much of it on our doorstep and now we have a variety that we feel pays homage to that.’
Albariño is now a frequent fixture on many seafood-restaurant wine lists, so if you’ve never tried it, this excellent example from Newton Johnson is the ideal place to start.
Newton Johnson 'Full Stop Rock' Syrah Grenache Mourvèdre, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley 2019
‘And breathe’: a chardonnay revelation
The quality of chardonnay was better than ever at this year’s Wine Champions. The southern hemisphere in particular showed its worth, providing winners from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa – proof, as buyer Sarah Knowles MW said, that ‘there’s great chardonnay made around the world’.
Director of Wine Pierre Mansour, who was full of praise for the ‘wonderful’ flight of chardonnays on offer, added: ‘You’ll be surprised if you’ve only tasted chardonnay from Burgundy. Look elsewhere and you’ll find elegant, restrained examples.’
One aspect our tasters were keen to point out was how chardonnay blossoms when decanted, something buyer Toby Morrhall has long advocated. He says: ‘Chardonnay develops flavours in contact with air, unlike aromatic varieties like sauvignon blanc whose aromas are damaged by oxygen. The last glass of a bottle of chardonnay is always the best as it’s had time to wake up. I always serve it at 12-13°C, not 3°C or 23°C!’
View our chardonnay champions
Own-label wines own the competition
Given that every bottle poured for our Wine Champions tasting is sampled blind, it’s especially pleasing when we remove the bottle bag of a winning wine to find our Society and Exhibition wines staring back at us. This year, no fewer than 27 of our own-label wines achieved Champion status, covering both classic regions such as Rioja and Burgundy, as well as new-found favourites from California and Greece.
Buyer Matthew Horsley said: ‘We often say that our own-label wines are the most important in our range, and often take up the majority of our time. Not only are we sourcing the wines and nurturing long relationships, but more often than not we’re playing an active role in key decisions such as blending and maturation.
‘The Exhibition range is the pinnacle of this, sourced from some of the world’s most renowned producers, with access to parcels few can even dream of. We’re extremely proud of them, so to see them triumph against wines in the same category, and in the eyes of our colleagues, is extra special.’
Browse our Society & Exhibition winners
The Society’s buyers combined their decades of experience to pick out the best wines for drinking now. In total, more than 900 bottles were tasted, whittled down to just under 150 winners. We’re proud to announce our 2022 Wine Champions.